Does “Lower Class” Culture Perpetuate Poverty? (redux)

14 Dec 2011 08:12 pm
Posted by: Donna

Newt

So we all know that GOP primary frontrunner Newt Gingrich has been spouting off about how child labor laws should be abolished and how “really poor” (read: black) elementary kids would make nifty janitors.

Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods, have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works, so they have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day; they have no habit of “I do this and you give me cash,” unless it is illegal.

Newt’s, um, wisdom may or may not have inspired Forbes tech contributor Gene Marks, an affluent middle aged white dude, to imagine what a determined, prescient, and self-reliant poor black kid he would be. But Marks did share his eloquent thoughts on the matter on a recent blog post – “If I Were A Poor Black Child:

The President’s speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.

I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.

It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.

That part I quoted is actually pretty innocuous compared to the rest. Trust me, it goes on and gets increasingly, and nauseatingly, condescending. Complete with links shilling various tech sites. I honestly don’t think Marks was being malicious in his post. He was being a salesman touting websites and reassuring his audience of rich white people. But it was shockingly callous of him to downplay the inequality poor black kids face while admitting his own kids (mediocre by his own assessment) have a boatload of undeserved advantages.

President Obama was right in his speech last week. The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance. So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them. Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home. Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it. Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids. Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

So poor minority kids need to be exceptional and especially motivated but rich kids can be average or less and still be confident of securing educational credentials and employment. Kids raised in poverty must divine by osmosis the specific technical and social knowledge that wealthier kids (like Gene Marks kids) have imparted to them via well funded schools and adults around them steering them in the right direction. Right, that’s fair. Needless to say the response from the blogosphere to Marks’ piece was scathing.

Sadly No: Privilege of Privileges

The Root: Why Forbes Column Crossed the Line

Pandagon: If I Were a Rich White Motivational Speaker

NewsOne Roundup of responses

The comments are as good as the blogs. One commenter (I forget on which post) posted a 1997 Onion article, “An Open Letter To A Starving Child”, to illustrate how unintentionally close to a parody Marks’ commentary was.

Dear Starving Child,
I saw your picture in one of these “Feed The Children” magazine ads. It said your mother dumped you in a Sri Lankan back-alley trash heap, and that you’ve been a street urchin, begging for scraps from Bedouin traders, since you were five. And it said for two cents a day I could feed you. Well, I must say, I don’t know how you can live like that. I mean, what are you thinking?

If I were you, I’d high-tail it home and make myself a juicy ham sandwich with some cheese on it, then I’d put it in the microwave so the cheese melts and the sandwich is nice and warm. In fact, I’d toast the bread so it has a little crunch to it.

And that brings me to why I’m writing you. I think I can offer you some basic tips on how to get along better in life. Instead of giving you a mere two cents a day, I’m going to give you a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom. You see, as a successful carpet salesman, I do all right. And I think I can share a lesson or two about getting the most out of this crazy game called life…

Give a poor kid a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Tell a poor kid how to sell carpet or watch TED podcasts on their high-speed internet and…the sky’s the limit! The absurdity that micromanaging poor people’s cultural choices can propel them out of poverty is a resilient belief. And a stupid and self-serving one. (Emphasis mine, going forward from here.)

The effect of tastes, child-rearing practices, speech patterns, reading habits, and other cultural factors is relatively small in comparison to the effect of wealth and influence. What I am trying to suggest is that the inclusion in the analytic process of the elements of social stratification that are usually omitted—particularly economic class and power—would produce more significant insights into the circumstances of the poor and the pressures and deprivations with which they live. The simplest—and at the same time, the most significant—proposition in understanding poverty is that it is caused by lack of money. The overwhelming majority of the poor are poor because they have, first: insufficient income; and second: no access to methods of increasing that income—that is, no power. They are too youn& too old, too sick; they are bound to the task of caring for small children, or they are simply discriminated against. The facts are clear, and the solution seems rather obvious—raise their income and let their “culture,” whatever it might be, take care of itself.

The need to avoid facing this obvious solution—which is very uncomfortable since it requires some substantial changes and redistribution of income—provides the motivation for developing the stabilizing ideology of the culture of poverty which acts to sustain the status quo and delay change. The function of the ideology of lower class culture, then, is plainly to maintain inequality in American life.

The millionaire, freshly risen from the lower class, whose crude tongue and appalling table manners betray the newness of his affluence, is a staple of American literature and folklore. He comes on stage over and over, and we have been taught exactly what to expect with each entrance. He will walk into the parlor in his undershirt, gulp tea from a saucer, spit into the Limoges flower pot, and, when finally invited to the society garden party, disgrace his wife by saying “bullshit” to the president of the bank. When I was growing up, we had daily lessons in this legend from Jiggs and Maggie in the comic strip.

This discrepancy between class and status, between possession of economic resources and life style, has been a source of ready humour and guaranteed fascination for generations. The centrality of this mythical strain in American thought is reflected again in the strange and perverse ideas emerging from the mouths of many professional Pauper Watchers and Victim Blamers.

In real life, of course, Jiggs’ character and behavior would never remain so constant and unchanging over the decades. The strain between wealth and style is one that usually tends to be quickly resolved. Within a fairly short time, Jiggs would be coming into the parlor first with a shirt, then with a tie on, and, finally, in one of his many custom-made suits. He would soon be drinking tea from a Limoges cup, and for a time he would spit in an antique cuspidor, until he learned not to spit at all. At the garden party, he would confine his mention of animal feces to a discussion of the best fertilizer for the rhododendron. In real life, style tends to follow close on money, and money tends to be magnetized and attracted to power. Those who try to persuade us that the process can be reversed, that a change in style of life can lead backward to increased wealth and greater power, are preaching nonsense. To promise that improved table manners can produce a salary increase; that more elegant taste in clothes will lead to the acquisition of stock in IBM; that an expanded vocabulary will automatically generate an enlargement of community influence—these are pernicious as well as foolish. There is no record in history of any group having accomplished this wondrous task. (There may be a few clever individuals who have followed such artful routes to money and power, but they are relatively rare.) The whole idea is an illusion of fatuous social scientists and welfare bureaucrats blinded by the ideology I have painstakingly tried to dissect in the previous chapters.

If you don’t get the “Jiggs and Maggie” reference, that’s understandable. The passage I quoted was written in 1971. Read the whole thing. It’s stood the test of time.

1 Comment(s)

  1. Comment by Timmys Cat on December 15, 2011 3:23 pm

    I wonder if inner city schools will be requiring a term paper titled -
    “If I were a middle aged smug white condescending passive aggresive racist.”?
    or perhaps -
    “If I were an intellectually lazy bigot who puts the onus on children rather than a bottom up political system that cuts services to schools to insulate a class of society that will tolerate no self-sacrifice.”

    Bootstrap Mark is gonna learn them kids they gotta work extra hard ’cause their kind can’t figure out about grants and computers. Plus working and studying hard just doesn’t come natural to their kind.
    He know this, just read his column..

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